Updated: August 14, 2023 - 9 min read
While some may say that a Product Manager is ‘the CEO of the product’, that’s not entirely true (although there are several product managers who became CEOs!). Both positions involve being the keeper of a vision, and both also have to be decision-makers and curate ideas from many different sources. But there are numerous differences between the two roles.
As a Product Manager, you have very little authority. While the buck stops with you when it comes to product decision-making, the overall health of the company doesn’t rest on your shoulders. A Product Manager might be the internal face of a product, but they’re unlikely to be making big public statements about the company, or answer directly to investors or a board of directors.
Despite these differences, there are many Product Managers who became CEOs. So if you’re a Product Manager with big dreams, look no further! Here we’ll take a look at why Product Managers have all the skills to become great CEOs, and some rising stars in tech who did just that!
You might also be interested in: The Quick Guide to Product Manager Salaries
Why do Product Managers make great CEOs?
The best leaders are the ones who understand and empathize with the problems of their team. That means that they’ve worked closely with different cross-functional teams, and have at least a broad understanding of each stage of product development. That goes for both CEOs and Product Managers.
When a Product Manager reaches executive level, they understand the day-to-day problems of everyone underneath them…because they’ve lived it! Experiencing challenges for yourself is the best way to understand them.
The day-to-day of a CEO and a Product Manager might not be identical…but they both involve meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. Both roles require you to influence others, though a CEO gets to do so with much more authority. In smaller companies and startups, both need to have a clear and firm understanding of the product strategy.
It’s common for Product Managers to transition to CEO in this way because they’ve already been playing the role of leader. As the company grows, it’s natural that the keeper of the product vision becomes the keeper of the company vision.
Product Managers who became CEOs
1. Neal Mohan | CEO, YouTube
Neal Mohan was the Chief Product Officer at YouTube for 8 years before taking over as CEO in 2023. If that's not an indication the value of Product Managers, I don't know what is! And before doing Product at YouTube, Neal had years more of Product experience under his belt.
As CEO, he's been making moves that show his Product Management background. He's listening deeply to the needs of users (both creators and viewers) and integrating this into the company strategy. This is a quote from his time as CPO:
“The interesting thing about YouTube — which will sound obvious but is actually something that’s pretty fundamental to all of our product decisions and in fact many of our policy decisions — is that it’s an app, but it’s really an ecosystem. That term gets used a lot, but in the YouTube context, it means a balance between viewers, creators, advertisers, and partners that are all participants in our ecosystem.”
Neal clearly has a grasp on all the stakeholders and their needs, as well as a deep understanding of what YouTube offers as product. He has leadership and decision- making experience, but also trusts his team to make their own decisions.
2. Ivan Zhao | Founder, Notion
If you haven’t heard of Notion yet…you will! Notion is the all-in-one workspace and collaboration tool which has taken over Silicon Valley! Ivan Zhao founded Notion back in 2012, after spending time on the product team at Inkling, an online learning solution in San Francisco.
One of the things that sets Notion apart, is the attention to detail in its product design. Zhao, being heavily invested in the importance of good product design, works with a strong team of talented UX and product designers. Their goal is to bring back the romantic tech of the 90s, when people were using computers as a new medium and building their own tools.
Don’t think that Notion’s small team makes it any less impressive. In an interview with InDesign, Zhao said;
“Sometimes I joke, “Moby Dick was written by one person.” Three of (Herman Melville) probably wouldn’t be much faster. Software is a lot like that. Without understanding what you’re trying to do, adding more people will actually slow you down.”
3. Stewart Butterfield | CEO, Slack
We all know and love Slack by now! Since 2013 it's been enabling smoother workplace communication, allowed for more natural conversation between co-workers, and contributed to the boom in remote work.
Slack CEO, Stewart Butterfield, describes his role of CEO on LinkedIn as ‘You know in cartoons when they run off a cliff but they don’t fall until they look down? I am trying not to look down!’ A fitting description of CEO life, which many product people can probably relate to!
Butterfield started out with a Bachelors and Masters degree in philosophy. (Although a Computer Science degree is a huge advantage if you want to get into tech, it’s evidently not a necessity!) He first broke into the product world as a Software and Internet Product Design Consultant (or simply a Product Design Consultant in today’s world.) He then went on to become the CEO and co-founder of Flickr, and then back to product as a Senior Director of Product Management at Yahoo.
So when did Slack come into the picture?
Slack was “born out of the style of communication that developed” while Butterfield was working on a game called Glitch with Tiny Speck.
He credits his time as a Director of Product Management at Yahoo as a big learning experience to prepare him for running his own company.
““Flickr was hugely successful and it was growing really quickly and we had a lot of attention so it was good practice for running a product and making decisions. And at the same time, it taught me a lot of what I wanted to avoid in the design of the company that we now run.””
4. Xiaoyin Qu | CEO, Run The World
Run the World is an online event platform, and has been featured in TechCrunch, Business Insider, CNN, and many more.
Xiaoyin earned a Bachelor’s degree in Economics with Computer Science, and went on to become a Product Manager at Instagram. After 6 months she was promoted to Senior Product Manager and worked on video monetization, launching the first version of ad breaks.
As CEO of Run the World, Qu is very strong on her product vision, especially in the wake of the 2020 pandemic, which affected the landscape of the events industry heavily.
““The right approach, I think, should be creating more occasions and events that otherwise would not exist” because of barriers like international travel or frequency.””
Not “just” a CEO, Qu is also a well known tech influencer and prolific writer. She published a book in China, ‘Building World-Class Products, 36 Tips From Silicon Valley’ which rose to #5 in the management category on JD.com (China’s largest online bookstore.)
She’s also the Chapter Lead of Women in Product for China, a contributor to Forbes China, and a columnist for 36kr.com.
5. Sheila Lirio Marcelo | CEO & Founder, Care.com
Sheila Lirio Marcelo started out with a Bachelor’s in Economics and went on to achieve an MBA from Harvard.
After spending some time as a consultant and analyst, she made the move to product at Upromise, where she was The VP of Product Marketing and Management. There, she initiated the "planning, development, and execution of creative, product management and member marketing units at Upromise that focused on website and email marketing and the overall Upromise service offering.”
A year later, in 2006, she went on to found Care.com, and for the last 14 years she has held the position of Founder, Chairwoman, and CEO.
Care.com describes itself as ‘a consumer tech company with heart,’ with the goal of helping people find care for their parents and grandparents.
Not only that, but in 2021 she also founded (and is now CEO of) Proof of Learn, a Web3 education platform. Just goes to show that Product Managers never stop coming up with solutions to problems. Once a Product person, always a Product person!
An avid speaker on women in tech, Marcelo has even spoken alongside President Obama at the White House Summit on Working Families.
Check out one of her talks on Leading with Purpose:
6. Sundar Pichai | CEO, Google and Alphabet
Maybe you’ve heard of Google. If so, you’ve probably heard of CEO Sundar Pichai. What you may not know, is that he started his career at Google as a Product Leader.
Pichai had a very hands-on experience at Google before he joined c-suite. He began in 2004, leading the development team on Google Toolbar and Google Chrome. Chrome now has 59.3% of the browser market.
He then went on to lead development of Android OS for smartphones, now used by millions of people across the globe. He became the CEO of Google in 2015, and was appointed CEO of Alphabet in 2019.
Colleagues point to his technical ability and excellent leadership skills as key reasons behind his success. Even before becoming an executive, he was well trusted by his teams.
Business Insider India points out one of Pichai’s most vital strengths, which made him a serious contender for the position of CEO.
He knows when to admit that he doesn’t know the answer. A valuable lesson for any good Product Manager!
Learn more with Product School
If you've been inspired by these six product managers who became CEOs you might be interested in Product School's free career development resources.
And if you're really ready to climb the career ladder and get your next product promotion, don't miss our Product Leader certification. You’ll learn directly from proven Product Leaders from top Silicon Valley tech companies like Google, Meta, and Amazon to leverage their real world experiences, frameworks, and approaches to help you excel. Schedule a call with our Admissions team and get one step closer to the position you've always wanted.
Updated: August 14, 2023